A letter book kept by Mohawk leader John Brant during his term as resident superintendent of the Six Nations of the Grand River has returned to its rightful owners.
The book, along with four letters dating back to Brant’s death in 1832, were previously held by Western Libraries Archives and Special Collections (ASC) before being repatriated to the Six Nations Lands and Resources office.
The letter book came to Western Libraries in October 1979 as a $100 purchase from what was then the London Public Libraries and Museum board. The process to return it to Six Nations was spearheaded by Western Libraries archivist Leslie Thomas.
“For the longest time, it was listed in our catalogue as the John Brant fonds, as the letters were believed to be his personal records,” she said.
However, through the assistance of an intern five years ago, Thomas discovered that was not the case. Instead, the book contained governance records of outgoing correspondence and proceedings of Six Nations general councils from 1828 to 1834, as well as those from 1837, 1843 and 1873. Topics include the survey of drowned lands, the navigation of the Grand River and the settlement of land claims in Brantford, Ont.
“It contains land ownership and treaty information, documenting any decisions made in that time period,” Thomas said. “That’s quite significant. I saw it as property we had no rights to.”
Thomas created an internal document, arguing for deaccession, which was reviewed and subsequently approved by all the archivists and librarians within the ASC.
She then contacted Marcie Sandy, land research unit supervisor at the Six Nations Lands and Resources Office, who was surprised and happy to hear the news.
“There are some letter books here in the office,” Sandy said. “But we don’t know what ones are missing. We really appreciate Leslie reaching out and returning the book to us, because that doesn’t always happen.”
For Thomas, returning the items was “just doing the right thing.” And after the pandemic slowed the repatriation process, she was pleased to finally see Constance Bomberry of the Six Nations Lands and Resources Office retrieve the documents in August.
Before the documents were repatriated, the land office agreed to allow the ASC to create high-quality, digitized files of the materials, now renamed as the Six Nations of the Grand River fonds.
“I’m really grateful they let us digitize them,” Thomas said. “They are allowing us to continue to provide access to our researchers and to put it online so anyone can look at it. That was very generous of them.”
Although there isn’t a significant amount of Indigenous material in the ASC, the unit has been working to support decolonization for close to a decade.
A current legacy description review project aims to address the use of inappropriate language in past descriptions of archival material in the archives catalogue and finding aids.
“This is something a lot of archives have worked on over the last couple of years,” she said. “Creating a finding aid historically is hierarchical and the file titles often come from donors. Materials that come from 1901 or even more recently can contain commonly used terms that are no longer considered appropriate. The challenge is finding it all.”
Where the original language is retained, Thomas said warnings will be added, noting offensive words or images.
“It’s about owning the content, recognizing it and letting people know.”
Thomas is also working on a project to identify 21 undated photographs featuring both non-Indigenous and unidentified Indigenous children and adults from Muncey, Ont. They may include members of the Munsee-Delaware Nation, Chippewas of the Thames First Nation and Oneida Nation of the Thames. By posting the images online using social media, she’s hoping the people in the photos will be recognized.
“I think it is really important that people be named,” Thomas said. “We have a poor history in Canada of not naming Indigenous people. I think not being represented, not seeing yourself in the past, actually does harm, because it’s taking you out of the picture, saying, ‘you’re not part of the story.’”
Active role in reconciliation
Through decolonization and repatriation, Thomas said libraries, museums and universities across Canada have an important role to play in reconciliation.
“Our profession is talking a lot about these issues,” she said. “We have so much responsibility in terms of collecting materials and making things available.”
She also believes libraries have a role in addressing equity, diversity and inclusion.
“People in the past collected from people who were like them, and archivists tend to be part of an overwhelmingly white profession. We need to redress these things and to recreate relationships.”